What To Do When War, Climate Change, And Other Global Threats Inevitably Hit Your Startup
I wouldn’t have thought that a book about an obscure school of ancient philosophy would put me in the manufacturing business, but life is full of surprises. Several years ago, after writing a book called The Daily Stoic, I started an email list that delivered one philosophical meditation each day. From there, I expanded the business into prints and then into an e-commerce company that sells all sorts of physical products–statues, coins, printed books–all over the world.
The Daily Stoic Store is a small business in the sense that there are only six or seven of us in the office every day–and yet it’s not really small at all, ranking in the top 1 percent of all Shopify stores. The result has been a surprising thrust into a world I had experienced before only from the outside. Labor practices, manufacturing practices, environmental practices–these were no longer abstract issues that other companies grappled with. They were things that I had to face, firsthand.
We all have opinions about big sweeping issues. We tell ourselves that if we were in charge, we would do things differently. If we were a multinational conglomerate, we wouldn’t use chemicals that harm the environment. If we were the decision makers, we’d have a diverse workforce, we’d be family-friendly employers, we’d speak out on political issues. We would pay a living wage. We wouldn’t do business with an overseas company that uses child labor.
But then the order for company T-shirts comes across your desk and you suddenly have to choose between the $9 option from China and the $19 one manufactured in the U.S. The right thing is still obvious. It’s just harder.
I’ll give you an example: At Daily Stoic, we sell challenge coins inspired by philosophical concepts (one says Memento Mori, another Amor Fati). After receiving many bids, I learned that it would be significantly cheaper to manufacture those coins in China than in the United States. Although I might have previously nodded my head in agreement with people who criticized outsourcing, now the tradeoffs directly affected my own bottom line.
Suddenly, it was ethics versus expenses: It was out of my wallet that the higher cost per unit would come. I would be the one who would have to go to customers and ask them to pay a higher price. It was me they might balk at.
Eventually, I made the difficult decision to go with a U.S.-based company called Wendell’s (in business since 1882). Then, a few months later, I stumbled across something else I could not ignore. The coins were going straight from the manufacturer to the third-party shipping contractor and then to the customer. And it wasn’t until an order got shipped to me that I realized each coin came shrink-wrapped in its own plastic covering.
How much of this plastic was being produced for my company? How much ended up in the trash–or, worse, in the ocean?
Wendell’s explained the protective benefits of the plastic–and I’m sure 95 percent of the world’s excessive packaging exists for that reason. The company also explained the plastic bags weren’t really costing me anything; this was just the way it had been doing things for a very long time. But, in this case, the environmental footprint was on my conscience, and only I could make it go away.
In our interconnected world, we entrepreneurs have more power than we think we do, and more than we might have had in earlier eras.
I say “could” because I wasn’t obligated to reduce the plastic my products were adding to the world. It’s not illegal to seek cheaper labor overseas. Most of my customers probably wouldn’t have noticed a change. But how could I have justified sorting my recycling at home if I was sending little plastic sheaths into thousands of homes every year? I asked Wendell’s to stop using the plastic. And if making that decision caused damage to a product during shipping, we’d deal with it. Nobody threw me a parade, but I, for one, felt better.
When John Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods, espouses conscious capitalism–the idea that the purpose of business is creating value not simply for shareholders but also for employees, consumers, suppliers, and the planet–it’s easy to assume he’s talking to other powerful captains of industry. But, no, he’s talking to all of us.
As the great novelist and political theorist Leo Tolstoy once suggested, we all feel qualified to reform humanity’s issues–but we are less inclined to reform ourselves. The Stoic school of philosophy, the thinkers whose ideas are the foundation of my business, would say that talking about what you believe in is much less important than embodying that belief, filtering your basic daily actions and choices through your philosophy. We can despair at the enormity of the world’s problems, or we can get to work where we work.
The truth is that in our interconnected world, we entrepreneurs have more power than we think we do, and more than we might have had in earlier eras. With a click of a button, we have unprecedented reach. We can plug into international supply chains. We can access the kinds of resources that compel great powers to go to war.
Just over a year ago, I watched horrified as Vladimir Putin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine. And, as the geopolitical experts and military leaders explained Putin’s strategy, it wasn’t a bunch of unpronounceable words and distant places to me. I found myself understanding exactly what was happening, because I had recently purchased the rights to publish a leather-bound edition of one of my books and had begun working with a small company in Texas to do it–a company that had also been manufacturing Bibles in Belarus for decades.
Belarus sits above Ukraine, and the Dnipro River winds its way through the country and down through its southern neighbor, past Kyiv, entering the Black Sea not far from Crimea. Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of Belarus, is one of Russia’s closest allies, and in the early days of the war, Lukashenko seemed likely to get involved at any moment; both he and Putin hope to gain control of a valuable shipping route, which in turn would make their countries more attractive to businesses like mine and much bigger ones. For a year and a half, I had been using raw materials that came in through this area and then trucking finished books to a port to be shipped out. This meant the invasion mattered to me as an American not just from a logistics standpoint–how our goods might manage to get through a war zone from printer to customers–but also from an ethical standpoint.
I spoke with a handful of experts, including two members of Congress. Their answer was quite clear: It may not have been illegal to do business with Belarus, but it was effectively the same as doing business with Russia. Is that what I wanted to do? Is that what I should be doing?
This was not the answer I wanted to hear. Further, a solution to the problem was not exactly obvious. I liked the people I was working with in Belarus. The bids I got from manufacturers in the U.K. were as much as 200 percent higher. It struck me, however, that the very book I was printing included a relevant line from Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor: “Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.”
I decided I didn’t want any part of contributing to the economy of a country that does the bidding of China or Russia. I couldn’t change the world, but I could change this. I could get as far away as possible from something I found abhorrent.
Sure, it was more expensive. It would take longer. Almost no one would have known if I had simply continued with what I’d been doing. But that doesn’t matter. I would have known.
In the end, it wasn’t a cost-benefit analysis that swayed me. The math wasn’t in my favor. I think you have to start with what you believe is right, and then try to make the math work from there.
I’m not McDonald’s or Apple or General Motors doing business overseas. And I’m not saying that I always make the right decisions, or that I have examined every inch of the supply chain and personally vetted every person or company involved. I haven’t. But, like many other entrepreneurs, what I’m doing is my best.
Each of us has the power to contribute to a problem or to be part of the solution. The decision to reform oneself is not an isolated one. It may matter only a tiny bit in the big scheme of things, but it does matter. All the decisions we make as business owners matter. We have agency, we have a say.
The question we all face, then, is obvious: How will we use it?
This piece was initially published in the May/June 2023 issue of Inc. Magazine and can be found on their website here.